When President George W. Bush issued 14 pardons on Monday, one stood out in the list of cocaine dealers and bank fraudsters — a Missouri farmer who was convicted more than a decade ago of killing bald eagles.
Leslie Owen Collier pleaded guilty in 1996 to killing three bald eagles a year earlier when he laced hamburger meat with pesticide to cut down on the local coyotes but wound up with a veritable wildlife massacre on his hands. After the dust settled, the body count included seven coyotes, the bald eagles, a red-tailed hawk, a great horned owl, an opossum and a raccoon. While killing a raccoon is not a federal crime, mishandling pesticide is — and killing bald eagles has been illegal since 1962 — so the farmer received a sentence of two years’ probation and a $10,000 fine. Now, with a presidential pardon, Collier’s inadvertent slaying of the national symbol no longer haunts him, though you can be sure his obituary will probably lead with the fact.
Bald eagles were removed from the federal endangered species list last year after staging a remarkable comeback from the brink of extinction in the early 1970s but are still a federally protected species and their slaying carries substantial fines in Colorado. In April, Gov. Bill Ritter signed into law HB 1304, the Illegal Taking/Possessing of Bald Eagles Act, hiking the state penalty for poaching the birds from $1,000 to $100,000 and up to a year in jail — that’s per eagle. Colorado lawmakers wanted to make sure state bald eagle poachers didn’t declare open season on the birds after federal penalties dropped to nuisance levels following the change in endangered status, so added the birds to a status shared by the golden eagle, Rocky Mountain goat, desert bighorn sheep, American peregrine falcon, and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.
“Even with change in status at federal level,” Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Michael Seraphin told the Colorado Independent, “guidelines are still in place that were in place before the Endangered Species Act.” In other words, “Bald eagles are not endangered, but they’re still protected nationwide.” said Seraphin, who serves the southeastern region of the state. “Bottom line is, you can’t kill ’em, you can’t be in possession of their parts.”
Exemptions exist for Native Americans who use eagle parts — feathers, talons — for religious purposes, but there’s a rigorous process to document and track the parts, including a federal repository where birds that die of natural causes can be cataloged and distributed.
It’s not the first time Bush has pardoned a bird villain. In March, two Colorado Springs brothers had their convictions erased for selling mounted migratory birds back in 1994. Jerry and Thomas Moldenhauer violated a 1918 prohibition when they sold a mounted and stuffed great horned owl, red-tailed hawk and Canada goose to undercover agents, earning three years’ probation and $1,000 fines apiece for the misdemeanor violations. “This is just bringing up bad memories from 14 years ago,” Jerry Moldenhauer told The Colorado Springs Gazette shortly after the presidential pardon, declining to comment further.
The brothers Moldenhauer are the only Colorado cases so far pardoned by Bush. Including Monday’s actions, Bush has granted a total of 171 pardons and commuted eight sentences — less than half as many as granted by presidents Clinton or Reagan, the other recent two-term presidents — during their terms.
Just for fun, here’s former Attorney General John Ashcroft sharing his deepest feelings about the bald eagle:
Check out the solar-powered Eagle Cam to watch the birds going about their business every spring at a nest near Xcel Energy’s Fort St. Vrain Station near Platteville. Colorado bald eagle observers share their sightings here. And every eagle fan should mark should mark Feb. 1, 2009, on their calendar for Eagle Day at the Pueblo State Park.